As Stream readers know, I and my European organization lobby a lot for the Christians in Syria and Iraq. On one occasion I was working the corridors of the European Parliament (EP) for this cause, and had an ugly encounter. I met people who claimed to represent Syria’s Christians. I quickly realized who they really were: agents of the brutal Assad government.
They thought I was ignorant. So they tried to convince me that another Syrian Christian who had just addressed an EP conference was a paid stooge of Kurdish militias. They told me that the Federation of Northern Syria was mere propaganda for Kurdish “terrorists.” They even claimed that the Christian military group cooperating with Kurds and Arabs, the Syriac Military Council, did not exist.
What these people didn’t know was that the man they were maligning was a friend of mine. Nor that I had been to visit the headquarters of the Syriac Military Council, and met with the brave Syrian Christians who are fighting for their freedom. I know the Kurdish leaders who are fighting alongside Christians and other minority groups as comrades in arms.
I confronted these Assad loyalists with all these facts. The conversation grew awkward. Then I asked them if they were really working for Assad’s government. They left, and I never spotted them again in the European Parliament.
Meeting those people so willing to lie about their own country pointed up a tragic fact: The Assad regime has a very strong hold over thousands of helpless Christians in Syria. Assad presents himself as their protector, and many in the West accept this at face value. There’s a good reason for that: The strongest groups of anti-Assad rebels are radical Islamists tied to al Qaeda. These are the main groups backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia. And where they have conquered Christian towns, they have ethnically cleansed them, just as ISIS would.
If the U.S. helps these groups to replace Assad — the way the U.S. helped radical Islamists come to power in Iraq — the Christians of Syria would be finished. (Most of Iraq’s 1 million Christians were driven into refugee camps or killed after the U.S. invasion.) Knowing this, many of these unarmed, frightened people cling to Assad, as Iraqi Christians once clung to Saddam Hussein. And Assad works hard to keep these Christians under his control.
A friend of mine once visited a Syrian bishop. While they were sitting together the bishop got a call. It was from the Syrian secret service. They wanted to know whom he was meeting with. Assad keeps Christians on a very short leash indeed. The Christian community puts up with it out of fear of the alternatives: ISIS or al Qaeda. The bishops know that their flock is at Assad’s mercy.
Many Syrian Christians want an end to Assad’s dictatorship. Many have been victims of the regime. A friend of mine was tortured. Another saw his father “disappeared” by the Syrian secret police. I have received reports of young people being arrested and tortured because they “liked” the wrong Facebook pages.
The Christians of Al Qaryatayn trusted Assad to protect them. But in August 2015, he ignored their dire situation, and let ISIS take the town. He waited almost a year before taking action, leaving many of them to be abducted or killed by ISIS. The Assad regime has made extensive deals with ISIS to buy gas, electricity and oil. He made it his priority to fight the Free Syrian Army rather than ISIS.
Such facts explain why not all Christians in Syria support Assad. Some have instead joined the Syriac Military Council. As part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) they have been fighting against ISIS in North-East Syria since 2013 and will be part of the operation to take Raqqa. The SDF is not in any direct conflict against the Assad regime, but it is completely independent of it. These Syriac-Assyrian Christians experienced his oppressive methods first-hand. They don’t want to go back under his control.
Thankfully, the U.S. is allied with the Syrian Democratic Forces. However, a legacy policy from the Obama administration is still in place: As I reported here at The Stream, the U.S. supports the Christian militias with words, but won’t give them arms.
Now President Trump has made the decision to back the removal of Assad from power. He made this choice tangible by shelling the Shayrat Airfield as retaliation for the chemical attack at Khan Sheikhun, for which the U.S. blamed Assad.
Even without that chemical attack, the Assad regime is clearly a brutal dictatorship. The Syrian people deserve better than Assad, ISIS or al Qaeda. The great risk is that if the U.S. intervenes directly, it will hand the country to al Qaeda — as the Turks and Saudis are spending millions trying to do.
As John Zmirak and Jason Jones wrote here at The Stream, the only decent, humane solution for Syria is a Swiss-style decentralized regime. Such a government would leave power in the hands of local and regional governments and protect minority groups. The Federation of Northern Syria implemented precisely this. Kurds allied with Christians and moderate Sunni Arabs control a large swathe of the country. Instead of allowing Assad or al Qaeda to crush this free, tolerant government, a peace plan should protect it. The Russians are already behind such a plan to federalize Syria. The U.S. must use its vast influence to support it.
If the U.S. really wants Assad out of power, it needs to remove one of his key sources of support: The desperate loyalty of terrified Syrian Christians. President Trump could do that, and steal Assad’s mantle as “protector” of these people, by backing those Syriac-Assyrian Christians in Syria who are already fighting ISIS: The Syriac Military Council. The Federation of Northern Syria already controls an area twice the size of Lebanon. Would the U.S. really like to see ISIS, al Qaeda or Assad gain control of the innocent people who now live there in safety and freedom?
Why continue Obama’s bankrupt policy of singling out Christians to deny them the means of self-defense against ISIS? Why let Assad pose as the only hope for Syrian Christians? Didn’t the American people elect Donald Trump because they wanted a new approach?
The U.S. should give Syria’s fighting Christians the weapons they ask for. Russia has no objection. Arming the Syriac Military Council would hurt Assad and ISIS, and help protect millions from al Qaeda in the time after. It would also allow them to arm the many who want to join them but cannot due to a lack of arms. Here’s a video plea from the Christians on the front lines fighting ISIS, asking President Trump for help:
Christians in the U.S. can make a real difference in Syria. Contact your representatives and the president, and tell them to help our fellow Christians protect their families. (For more from the author of “Syrian Christians Need Guns” please click HERE)